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Building and Supporting a Diverse Workforce To Seed the Future

Post Date:
October 03, 2022
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Building and Supporting a Diverse Workforce To Seed the Future

Women, individuals with disabilities, and members of certain racial and ethnic groups are underrepresented in science and engineering, as well as in business ownership. This underrepresentation can be compounded when considering representation in STEM/R&D-focused entrepreneurship, as with America’s Seed Fund, the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) programs. Core to the mission of America’s Seed Fund is fostering and encouraging diversity and inclusion in innovation and entrepreneurship. One way multiple SBIR/STTR funding agencies address this goal is through initiatives to enhance the diversity of the future workforce by providing funding that can support salaries and training at SBIR/STTR awardee companies aimed at increasing the participation of researchers from underrepresented groups in technology development – Diversity Supplements. This provides small business awardees with the ability to add staff and train future employees, while exposing more people to the experience of research in a business environment.

Work-based learning opportunities at SBIR/STTR awardee firms provide value to different stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem.

Diverse researchers. Researchers eligible for sponsorship through a Diversity Supplement (see program descriptions below), can benefit from a paid opportunity to see how R&D works inside a small, innovation-focused company and exploring a cutting-edge research area. Researchers can connect with a local assistance provider or review lists of agency SBIR/STTR awardees (see or agency-specific award pages, as available) to find interesting companies and contact information.

SBIR/STTR awardees. For the small businesses, Diversity Supplement funding enables the company to work with additional researchers (beyond those planned in the original SBIR/STTR proposal) to advance the science around the company’s SBIR/STTR technology. The remainder of this article provides an overview of agency-specific opportunities. Local assistance providers and research institutions with strengths in the business’s research topics may be good sources of potential talent.

Entrepreneur support organizations. Groups supporting their regional economies have a vested interest in helping companies access these supplements, because the end product can both strengthen a local business and facilitate professional development for a diverse researcher (and potential entrepreneur). These organizations can facilitate Diversity Supplement awards to their regions and client companies by (a) working with research institutions to identify interested, eligible researchers, (b) providing information to small businesses about the supplemental funding and process, and (c) connecting with federal agencies to better understand the process and timing.

Federal agencies. Supplements allow agencies to reach their general goals of increasing education about SBIR/STTR proposal processes and fostering relationships between small business and academic communities, as well as diversifying the individuals and, possibly, the research topics in the field. In the long term, researchers supported by the Diversity Supplements may go on to launch their own companies that could participate in the SBIR/STTR programs.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

SBIR/STTR awardees with either Phase I or Phase II awards from NIH can apply for additional funding to support undergraduate or graduate students, or faculty to work on their SBIR/STTR-funded project through the Administrative Supplements to Promote Diversity in Research and Development funding opportunity. The purpose of the program is to enhance the diversity of the research and entrepreneurial workforce, and support research and entrepreneurial experiences for individuals who have been underrepresented in the field. Supplements vary from less than $5,000 to more than $100,000, depending on the career level of the candidate and are limited to no more than the amount of the current parent award. Learn more about resources NIH is committing to diversifying the entrepreneurial workforce:

Program example: BeCool Pharmaceuticals

NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has seen its Small Business Diversity Supplement support 18 investigators at various career stages since the initiative launched in 2018. The program has invested more than $2 million so far in these supplements.

BeCool Pharmaceuticals, an STTR-supported company based in Fairbanks, Alaska, focuses on creating temperature-regulating therapeutics to improve survival and recovery after cardiac arrest. As a medical student, Dr. Bernard Laughlin, a Native Alaskan epidemiologist, was inspired to find a novel drug for ischemia-reperfusion injury — tissue damage caused by lack of oxygen and the return of blood flow — following his father’s death from this condition after a heart attack.

Through an NHLBI Diversity Supplement award to BeCool, Dr. Laughlin gained an opportunity to perform the animal research outlined in the company’s STTR grant, including implementing study designs, surgical procedures, and all of the animal handling necessary for BeCool’s proposed experiments. In 2019, Laughlin also served as the company’s Chief Scientific Officer for the NIH I-Corps training program. Laughlin is still BeCool’s Chief Scientific Officer and leads the company’s preclinical studies.

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)

DOE SBIR/STTR Phase II awardees are eligible to apply for a diversity supplement that enables the firm to hire an undergraduate or graduate intern during the summer of the award’s second year. The intern must be from a group that is underrepresented in the SBIR/STTR program. The maximum funding for the supplement is $20,000 and becomes effective during the summer of the awardee’s second year project period.  Learn more about DOE’s Phase II Diversity Supplements:

National Science Foundation (NSF)

Funded by NSF, the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) operates the Innovative Postdoctoral Entrepreneurial Research Fellowship (I-PERF) to mentor, match, and fund early-career science and engineering doctoral degree recipients to contribute their skills at promising startups. Active NSF SBIR Phase II awardees with at least 9 months remaining on their award can submit research opportunities to be matched with a fellow. Applicants must have earned a PhD in a STEM discipline within seven years of their application and be a U.S. Citizen, National, or permanent resident. Fellows receive an annual base stipend of $78,000 per year plus a variety of benefits, funded by the NSF. More information on I-PERF can be found at:

NSF SBIR/STTR Phase II awardees are also eligible to apply for supplemental funding to support research by high school students, K-12 teachers and community college faculty, undergraduate students, and veterans.  

Related program: Phase IIA Supplement

One of NSF’s opportunities for institutional partnerships shares similar goals with Diversity Supplements. The Small Business Minority Academic Research Partnership Supplement, or Phase IIA, aims to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in both academic and small business research, connecting existing awardee businesses with researchers and institutions on projects that advance the underlying SBIR/STTR research while supporting the education- and research-related goals of institutions with Centers for Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) or Historically Black Colleges and Universities Research Infrastructure for Science and Engineering (HBCU-RISE) awards. Learn more about NSF SBIR/STTR Phase IIA:

Program example: ThinkLive!

ThinkLive! is an education technology business that assists students in learning STEM skills via music and DJ-ing. The company was awarded Phase IIA funding by NSF to partner with Norfolk State University, an HBCU in Virginia.

Charles Spencer, ThinkLive! CEO, said in an interview that the Phase IIA project with Norfolk State University, would embed machine learning into the platform and, “add additional socially-relevant content and curriculum.” These additions allow for curated learning, as the software enables educators to see what is working or not working for each student.

When asked how NSF’s Phase IIA project would help his business Spencer said, “Being able to personalize the learning options we see is greatly increasing the potential for positive impacts for that student. Having positive self-identifying features in the application builds confidence in that student.”

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